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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Animal sounds and imaginative experience: the possibility of language

    With this entry I return to the kind of speculative "idea-dump" that characterized this research blog in its early days. The object is to put some ideas out there, half-formed, for rumination and contemplation, that they may develop into something further. For nearly a year I've been thinking, writing, and speaking about a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication. I'm in the revision stages of a 10,000-word article on that subject, for The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Ethnomusicology. I've also been researching animal sound communication for several years from two other standpoints: behavioral ecology (the dominant approach taken by Western science) and indigenous ecological knowledges, where animals and their relations with one another, with humans, and with their environments are conceived variously and differently. A phenomenological approach did not appear promising at first, but phenomenologies of embodiment and perception have opened up a number of possibilities. Recently I've been thinking about the possibility that instead of conceiving that animals "communicate" (in sound and in other ways), their language may be connotative as well as denotative, and if so, it may be that their responses are not merely reactions to stimuli, but far more complex in the sense that they experience, in their own ways, the world as it is evoked in animal language. Here is what I've been thinking; my apologies to readers if it is obscure. Much of it remains inchoate. 
     It follows from von Uexküll’s conception of umwelt that animals have experiences in their own embodied ways. For that reason, it’s possible to entertain the possibility that animal sounds don’t offer merely signals that stimulate responses, but also the possibility of experiences in a way appropriate to the animal. Human language, of course, offers experiences to humans; but I don’t mean to imply that they are translatable to the experiences of animals. And yet, there may be similarities.
     Human language invites readers or listeners to experience the world described and evoked in the language. By language I mean more than words; I mean gestures, attitudes, dispositions, prior knowledge and understanding, anticipated futures, and everything else that offers an experience of language as it occurs in the present. The language of literature, particularly story, offers perhaps the richest invitation to experience. But so does the language of the law address the imagination, and so does any language that is connotative as well as denotative, any language that is the least bit metaphorical—even the language of science. 
     Behavioral ecologists, of course, resist this possibility. Animal language for the behaviorist consists of signals that may or may not transmit information, but which nevertheless influence or manipulate the receiver to respond in some way—a physical response, movement of some kind in most cases. 
     But if we follow von Uexküll, and Merleau-Ponty (animal embodiment and consciousness), and Gibson’s concept of affordances, we may entertain the possibility that animal communication is not merely signal and response, as if it were a mechanical system, but that it is more complex—it is language which invites animal experience. For example, whereas an alarm call might provoke an automatic “fight or flight” response, a mating birdsong might evoke, in the listening bird’s brain, a cognitive simulation of any number of possibilities involving what it would be like to be a mate with this bird. In other words, the listening bird would “imagine,” as it were, acts of companionship. I realize that this line of reasoning risks anthropomorphism, and that is why except for the word “imagine” (in scare quotes) I have tried to avoid humanizing; but the fact is that we cannot avoid thinking about animal behavior in human terms. Even the behavioral ecologists do not avoid it: a good example is the way they apply game theory and cost/benefit analysis to predict animal behavior, for games, play, and cost/benefit are human concepts.